David Burrowes is MP for Enfield Southgate and an Executive Member of the 1922 Committee.
Winston Churchill said that his ambition was to have the “finest social ambulance service in the world”. Do present day politicians, and particularly Conservatives, share that ambition about welfare?
Certainly Iain Duncan Smith has great ambition for continued welfare reform, and always making it pay to be in work rather than welfare. He has spoken “about transforming the life chances and outcomes of those on benefits” – bringing down the cost of social failure in the process.
George Osborne has also stated his ambition to bring the welfare bill down to a sustainable level, and we will see the latest instalment of that project in the Budget on Wednesday.
The financial logic for taking action is clear. As the Chancellor said a couple of weeks ago, the UK is “home to 1 per cent of the world’s population, has 4 per cent of world GDP, but has 7 per cent of global welfare spend.”
Throughout history we have been reactive, instead of proactive, when it comes to welfare. When Lloyd George introduced welfare legislation in 1906 he was reacting to political danger; William Beveridge to societal danger; and the present government to economic danger.
According to the historian Arthur Marwick, even the term ‘welfare state’ was coined by British politicians looking for an easy to remember slogan to contrast with Hitler’s ‘warfare state’. Contemporary debate has been suffocated by slogans too.
On one side campaign groups queue up to criticise cuts, which allegedly fall hardest on the poorest. Meanwhile on the other side tabloid newspapers condemn the work-shy for exploiting an over-generous system. In a Commons debate last week Labour MPs did their best to pin the slur “they’re all a bunch of shirkers or scroungers” on Ministers.
It’s time we de-weaponised the welfare debate.
Commentators on the left always seek to frame the welfare debate around poverty, but analysis suggests that subsidies are granted to council housing tenants earning over £30,000, while additional research reveals that two-thirds of disability benefit claimants come from medium to high income earning households.
We need to have an honest and positive debate about welfare. We should be clearer about its purpose and then more active in being champions for those who really need it.
IDS has summed up the modern progressive purpose of the welfare state, which “can catch you when you fall, lift you when you can rise”. Conservatives are strong advocates of mobility and aspiration, but much weaker as advocates of security and solidarity.
We need to be champions not only of those who want to get on, but also of those who can’t get on through no fault of their own.
We should be proud of spending £33.5 billion each year on benefits for the sick and disabled.
We should acknowledge research by the Institute for Fiscal Studies showing that between 2011 and 2014, spending on disability living allowance increased by £1.8 billion, spending on attendance allowance increased by £200 million, and spending on carer’s allowance increased by £400 million, against the projections of left-wing think-tanks.
We should applaud the fact that the number of unemployed disabled people has fallen by more than 15 per cent over the past year; that 230,000 more disabled people have gained the dignity and value of work for themselves and their families.
Yet even after those changes, as a proportion of GDP the amount the UK spends on benefits for the disabled is double that of the US, a fifth more than the European average, and six times that of Japan.
Let us debate how much we want to spend on the safety net budget – the budget which looks after the most vulnerable – as a percentage of GDP, rather than just discussing how much needs to be cut from the welfare budget overall. We should provide a careful analysis of the current and projected demand for the safety net and set aside the cash required for it accordingly.
The budget for vulnerable people facing temporary or long term hardship should not consist of leftover crumbs once the welfare cake has been shared out with pensioners and child benefits and required savings. We should be clear before budget rounds that the safety net budget will be protected so that vulnerable people have nothing to fear.
For example carers for terminally ill relatives should not be anxious this week about potential cuts to their allowance: they should know that the Conservatives will always be on their side.
Conservatives should not leave it to campaign groups or Labour to highlight challenges and cases of hardship. All MPs will have examples of constituents who face significant challenges living on benefits, and we should not be shy in championing the vulnerable.
We should be scrutinising with care the transfer of £262 million from the Independent Living Fund to local Councils, and whether the planned £38 million savings are fully realised or whether they impact unfairly on disabled people.
We should recognise that our disabled and vulnerable constituents do not just rely on benefits but social care funds. Many don’t see efficiency savings in terms of central or local government cuts, but in terms of a reduction of a service or carer.
We need to look at how we can better integrate funding of social care and benefits, to maximise the positive impact of funds while minimising the negative impact of much-needed reforms.
By the time we get to the Autumn Statement, and future budgets, welfare ought to be sufficiently de-weaponised and the safety net championed by all political parties – and particularly compassionate One Nation Conservatives.